What is Olympic Weightlifting?
It is sad that these great movements hardly exist anymore in the training programs of the West. Those who are performing Olympic weightlifting still have a clear-cut advantage over those who are not in improving performance. How often do you walk into a gym and see somebody snatching, or clean and jerking a barbell? Not often, if ever.
Many people are dragged into fearing these lifts due to the words of a few. Over time these lifts have been credited as being the most dangerous form of exercise in existence. What people don’t understand is this: exercises do not injure people, people injure people. It’s the uneducated lifter using poor form and inadequate warm-up protocols that results in injuries. The safety of Olympic lifting has been documented in several studies. One study has shown that Olympic lifting has the lowest number of injuries per 100hrs trained compared to both bodybuilding and powerlifting (1).
Olympic lifting is often trained very intensely and with a much greater frequency than bodybuilding routines. The Bulgarians train in the gym 4-6hrs a day spread over several sessions, working Olympic lifts 6 days a week. (2). The Chinese also train in a similar manner. In the Eastern European countries Olympic lifting is virtually the national sport; being a weightlifter is a full time job with bodybuilding a distant second. Far from being the safe option, traditional bodybuilding methods can be very hazardous to athletes in speed and strength sports such as American football or soccer. The reason for this is Olympic lifts use a much greater range of motion, which exposes the connective tissues, tendons, ligaments and muscle fibers to various angles and degrees of resistance. This helps the body become more functional, in that it can learn to cope with a variety of forces and activities without becoming injured. Bodybuilding on the other hand uses isolation movements that can often make the body imbalanced. In addition to this, bodybuilding exercises slow you down. Having a great deal of muscle mass does not necessarily make you slow, but if you gained that muscle mass through bodybuilding-style training it is not functional.
If you look at the best Athletes in the Olympic Games 90% of them will have one thing in common. Ranging from pole vaulters to shot putters, they all have some form of Olympic weightlifting in their program—even if that ranges from the traditional power clean to the much more complex snatch. These athletes understand the importance and benefits of these movements and the carryover to their sport. Olympic lifts train the athlete to explode and use the maximum possible force. They develop a high Rate of Force (RF), a key point in sports training. Olympic lifters train fast twitch muscle fibers, the fibers that are employed to give you speed, explosiveness and power. It has been shown that the percentage of fast twitch fibers in the body directly contributes to the vertical jump; the more fast twitch fibers you have the higher you are able to jump (3), and this is the best indicator for athletic ability in American football players (4). The jumping and running abilities of Olympic lifters were documented in the Mexico City Olympic Games where they out ran and out jumped the jumpers and sprinters in the vertical jump and 25m sprint! This is an amazing feat considering these men do not train specifically for jumping or running. Here is a list of jumping feats by Olympic weightlifters, from Chad Ikei’s ‘Pulling to Jump Higher’ article:
Nicu Vlad of Romania, world record holder and two time Olympic medalist, came to the United States back in 1990, with now current US National and Olympic Team Coach Dragomir Cioroslan for a training camp. It was here at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, that this 100kg (220lbs) weightlifter recorded a 42″ vertical jump. Not to mention he was in weightlifting shoes, which weigh a lot more than tennis shoes and he performed no formal warm-up (Snatch 200kg, Clean and Jerk 232.5kg).
Wesley Barnett of Team USA, 3-time Olympian and silver medalist at the 1997 World Championships, has legs (especially hamstrings) and an ass like a thoroughbred on him that most bodybuilders would like to have. He has recorded vertical jumps of over 39″ at a height of 6’1″ and 105kg (231lbs). I’ve even witnessed him dunking a basketball while jumping over my head, and I do mean literally jumping over my head which of course only stands a mere 5’2″ but he straddle jumped directly over my head and dunked (Snatch 175 kg, Clean and Jerk 220 kg).
Mark Henry, 1996 Olympic Team Member, now known as ‘Sexual Chocolate’ on the WWF scene, had quite a vertical jump. At 6’3″ tall he could dunk a basketball, not to mention that he could squat over 1,000lbs and dead lift over 900lbs. Now dunking a basketball at 6’3″ doesn’t sound that hard, but take in to account that he weighed at that time 175kg (385lbs). Now that’s impressive for a big guy (Snatch 180 kg, Clean and Jerk 220 kg).
Shane Hamman, 2000 Olympic Team Member and current National Super Heavyweight Champion, another big man weighing in at 163kg (358lbs) but only at a height of 5’9″ tall, can jump onto boxes over 42″ high. Of course Shane was also known for his squatting ability of over 1,000lbs (Snatch 195 kg, Clean and Jerk 230 kg).
There are also many other great benefits of Olympic lifts that help athletes. They develop great amounts of flexibility, a key factor in sports. Olympic lifts teach an athlete to coordinate their body; they teach discipline in studying and mastering the technical challenges of the lifts. Olympic lifts have also been used for helping athletes recover from older injuries. In a study done by Stone, Wilson, Blessing and Rozenek (5), athletes performed an Olympic lift for eight straight weeks, and it was found that the athletes resting heart rates decreased by 8%, systolic blood pressure decreased by 4%, lean body weight increased by 4% and body fat dropped by 6%.
It is a very sad fact that there are only around 1,500 competing Olympic lifters in America today. If I could I would change that, but there is very little one can do but to open up people’s minds and help them realize the benefits. Perhaps one day we will walk into a gym and we will not see dumbbells or bench press machines, but we will see men on platforms moving huge amounts of weight from the ground to above their head like it was nothing. Hopefully I have helped show you the benefits of Olympic lifts and cleared out some of the negative factors that people use to knock down Olympic weightlifting.
1)Source: Brian P. Hamill, “Relative Safety of Weightlifting and Weight Training,” _Journal of Strength Conditioning Research, Vol. 8, No. 1(1994): 53-57
(2)Zatsisorsky, VM “Science and Practice of Strength Training” Human Kinetics, 1995
(3)Bosco C & Komi (1979b) Mechanical characteristics and fiber composition of human leg extensor muscles Eur J Appl Physiol 41:275-284
(4)Sawyer D, Ostarello J, Suess E, Dempsey M. (2002). Relationship Between Football Playing Ability and Selected Performance Measures. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: 16(4), pp. 611 – 616.
(5)Stone, M.H., et al. Cardiovascular Responses to Short-Term Olympic Style Weight-Training in Young Men. Can. J. Appl. Sport Sci. 8(3): 134-9.